Indian archaeologist discusses national monument conservation challenges
On Monday, the University of Michigan's Center for South Asian Studies hosted Professor Nayanjot Lahiri, a historian and archaeologist, to discuss conservation struggles faced by India’s archeological efforts. Lahiri referenced the mistreatment of major Indian national monuments and possible solutions to protect these monuments and educate the Indian people on Indian heritage.
Lahiri studies ancient India and is a professor of history at Ashoka University. She won the 2013 Infosys Prize and has published multiple books on ancient Indian history and archeology.
CSAS professor Thomas Trautmann introduced Lahiri and described her writing historical works.
“She is a wonderful writer and a very engaging one and notes it and appreciates and curates it,” Trautmann said.
As Lahiri took the stage, she referenced the Archaeological Survey of India which states there are only 3,700 nationally protected monuments, 10,000 monuments protected by state and union territories and over 500,000 monuments in India left unprotected and subject to mistreatment.
“I think it's necessary to remember that … (even though) a monument has been declared protected or just because there are lots of antiquities in different museums in India, this is not in itself enough to ensure that they will be properly conserved,” Lahiri said.
During the lecture, she projected images of Indian monuments harmed by human actions such as the Taj Mahal and the Elephanta Caves. She showed statues on which people have hung clothes and the Elephanta caves covered in garbage. She stated more than two-thirds of India’s federally protected monuments are left unguarded.
Lahiri also blamed the poor treatment of the monuments on encroachments as part of a systematic land grab and politicians who favor these actions over ones that protect the heritage sites.
“These beautiful monuments, as a consequence, has (sic) been turned into a rubbish dump,” Lahiri said.
One example of this, according to Lahiri, is when former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government allowed the creation of a petroleum refinery within 40 kilometers of the Taj Mahal in 1968. As soon as 1973, it became evident environmental pollutants had been harming the monument itself, and the Indian Supreme Court stepped in to regulate the emissions from the refinery.
“In retrospect, Mrs. Gandhi’s inability to act on this manner sits very uneasily with her interest in monuments, one can only surmise that the tassel between heritage and development, in this instance, she turned her face away from the past,” Lahiri said.
Lahiri gave possible solutions for the care of monuments. She stated that the top-down approach with the government has failed and a bottom-up approach would help protect heritage sites and public pressure from the ground-up would better protect these national sites. She supported education in schools beyond textbook learning, such as taking children out to these monuments, which she believes would instill national pride and protection for their heritage.
Rackham student Brittany Puller said Lahiri’s lecture was, for her, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear the author.
“My biggest takeaway was the conservation of Indian monuments and how not much is being done, however, it needs to be a bottom-up approach rather than just an archeological sites approach,” Puller said.
Lahiri emphasized the pride she has in her Indian heritage and the pride all Indians should have over their monuments.
“India’s monuments and relics, I think, deserve better than what has fallen to their lot,” Lahiri said. “Their ownership across all sections of society is very urgent and necessary, they have to survive in a better form than what we see around."